To be sure, there are men, women, and children swarming about us, some of them quite visible, others, nevertheless swarming, but invisible to us. We view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and jealousy. We see them as the leaders, innovators, courageous ones we in secret long to be but which we know ourselves to be beyond our reach.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Fond as you are of novels and, indeed, eager as you are to finish work on a nonfiction work in progress in order to get at a novel that has essentially been filing habeas corpus petitions in its desire to get attention, a visitor to your residence would have a difficulty getting a read on your tastes.
That would change when the visitor came to the south south eastern corner, where a dedicated shelf, a reading chair, and the nearby eastern wall betray you.
The closest you've come to hearing from a person inside your small studio living quarters, "You sure have a lot of books," came when a FedEx driver, after your signature, surveyed the arrangement, then observed, "You get in a lot of reading, I see."
Relative to the overall space and arrangement of your living quarters and the ongoing invitations of books to take up residence, you have a noticeable amount of books but not the overwhelming number you had before moving here, thinking to take only a hundred of your favorites. Nor are you likely to have any guests who are themselves not readers. Nor do you have that many books in electronic format, lurking on your computers or tablets.
With the possible exception of the kitchen, most of the things of any interest are under stacks of books or surrounded by them, and the kitchen is not by any means innocent of books: Two shelves are packed to overflow, and the south wall has a badly improvised stack, teetering to the level of the windows.
Nothing to be said about the stairway leading to the main room, its western wall close to becoming a hazard. Also noting except this scant sentence about the books among the linen shelves in the bathroom. Thus your adopted and adoptive family, titles you've acquired in the three-and-a-half years of your residence at 409 E. Sola Street.
You might slip in a sentence or two about books in or about the patio table and, of course, scattered about your car, for what is a car to you without a book or two, just in case you find yourself somewhere with time enough on your hand for a paragraph or two or perhaps even a page.
The bookshelf of your betrayal, which is what this essay is about, is your collection of short story collections, most of them single-author as opposed to anthologies. But the west wall of previous mention has a number of those. This is the domain of books filled with your favored reading material, the short story.
The beginnings of research for a course you will teach, featuring the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, got you to thinking about your preferences and your association with your preferences and the times you were caught out in rain storms. You do not merely think about D. H. Lawrence in the sense of, oh, yes, he wrote poetry and novel and essays and some short stories. Some is putting it in mild terms. Some! is better. At least two thick volumes of them, which you remove from the shelves, where they reside between Ursula K. LeGuinn and Ella Leffland.
In and about this shelf are many of the stories and writers who comprise as much of what you've wished to be from time to time as you could let yourself recognize. Many of the volumes are inscribed to you by the authors, and one of them, a collection of William Maxwell, could have been, if you'd have trusted the book review editor to follow through on his promise of getting the book autographed.
Looking at the range of authors in these shelves is like discovering aunts and uncles who not only wished you well, they shared the deepest recess of their memories and fantasies and talents with you. Of course you knew they were not writing for or speaking directly to you, but as you read them, you believed they did, and what is more, you wished to learn their secrets and techniques so that you could write that way, yourself.
Right there between Ron Hansen and Ernest Hemingway is Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, containing a story you first read at age nineteen. The story made up for "The Minister's Black Veil," which got you into the trouble of your expressing your views that the story was meant to be funny, reminding you of The Lone Ranger, who was to come. High school teachers do not favor students thinking a minister who wears a black veil over his face is in any way like The Lone Ranger.
"Ah,Lowenkopf again," Mr. Aigner, Boy's Vice Principal, said. "Why are you here this time?"
"The Intelligence Office" in effect gave you your own A-Ticket to the Transcendentalist Movement among American writers. This story is in its way a forerunner of a type of science fiction story where lines of imagination, metaphor, fable, and existentialism intersect. The story opens with a grave figure, wearing a pair of mysterious spectacles, sits at a simple desk in a small, simple office in "the corner of a metropolitan office."
A number of individuals visit the office, bringing questions to this grave figure providing them answers. The inquirer who caught your attention for keeps was a man who came in with this memorable quote: "I want my place!--my own place!--my true place in the world!--my proper sphere!--my thing to do, which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought, all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty, or a king's, is of little consequence, so it be naturally mine. Can you help me here?"
Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne turn you to your awareness that you, too, wished your own place in the world, and indeed felt that Nature had somehow fashioned you awry. From this story, you learned that you had to find your way and, in effect, your own identity. Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne in a sense become the paternal grandfather you lost to the influenza epidemic before you were born. He nudged you into thinking about lead characters in short stories wishing to find a place, a true place, a heroic journey of self-discovery, a quest of some sort.
At one time, you believed writing a novel was beyond you, although you did not reach this conclusion without trying. Later, you found the short stories you'd written to be excellent building blocks. You threw yourself at the novel with great éclat, telling yourself you would learn your craft not by revising but by writing new ones.
Easy to see you were stalled in the murk or pure, unbridled energy rather than the lessons to be had from focus and asking a great many questions along the way.
The collections of short stories in your south south east wall are simultaneously your questions about craft and your unending fondness for the short form. There is a relevant story about your encounters with each of the authors in the shelf.
P. S. Still looking, Nathaniel.
Monday, July 21, 2014
More often than not, the connection between the writer and actor first articulates itself when the actor is chosen to portray a character from a tangible work, a book, a story, a stage play, a screenplay.
In essence, the actor goes through a process similar to the one used by the writer in bringing the character out of the shadows and into the midst of story. The result is a fascinating symbiosis whereby the actor adds yet another layer to the palette of traits provided by the author.
At the outset of creation, the author had the need for a package in which to place the goals, imperfections, inabilities, fears, and talents of the recognizable entity we think of as a character. In the process of developing the story in which the character appears, the writer assumes the metaphorical persona of a ceramicist, adding a touch of attitudinal clay here, removing a certain amount of confidence or experience there.
After numerous revisions of the story, in which the authorial comparison to a ceramicist continues, the author adds, removes, complicates, simplifies, almost certainly at one point or another in the creation mixing the metaphor of ceramicist with, say, a surgeon, removing, rerouting, aging, addling, sharpening.
A completed character, that is one who has been revised, edited, left out all night to see how he or she fares in the wilderness, has evolved from a faint glimmer to a plausible presence. A completed character is, at the extreme least, a mixed metaphor.
In the cases of successful series of adventures featuring a particular character, say mystery novelist Tony Hillerman's famed Navajo detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the palette of traits and goals has been extended over time. Leaphorn, for instance, has to deal with the loss of his wife to cancer; Chee has to cope with an unspoken inner desire, growing over time, to become a shaman.
If the character first appeared in a play, say Hamlet, or The Death of a Salesman, the character has, in a lovely anomaly, grown while remaining the same. How does Hamlet do this? Why, he still seeks revenge for his father's murder, he still stirs up the hornet's nest of politics at Elsinore Castle, but he has as well evolved by being portrayed by the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannaugh, and Richard Chamberlain, pushing the boundaries of his presence, his motives, and his actions by every actor who would bring some special inner presence to this most special role.
Lee J. Cobb brought such a powerful presence to the character of Wiley Lohman that it was said of him he "owned" the character. And yet, Cobb's ownership did not scare off Dustin Hoffman or Brian Denehy--nor should it.
The writer and the actor share the process of finding and articulating character. In this process, the writer tends to be pushed back into the wings, his or her work completed, while those who would stage or film the actor at work begin their own processes of discovery.
The common trait shared by writer and actor is the ability to concentrate. The actor concentrates on the character to be portrayed, then devises movements, a rhythm, a voice to bring the character forth. The writer concentrates on each character as an individual, then as the entire ensemble, dithering and plodding about in search of the mischief that is story.
You've had a few moments of being in full concentration, where time, space, and causality are gone. Then the characters begin moving about, doing what they will, while you follow them, trying to observe.
Concentration. The focus on the now. The focus on now to the point where even thought of believing is transcended. You watch actors at work, using their powers of concentration. You try to find the place where the actor has stopped being the actor, the writer no longer the writer. You try to find the place where there are no splendid and bright metaphors or spectacular exchanges of dialogue, because those are in a real sense you, acting as publicist for the self as a writer rather than you, being the medium through which the character emerges.
Characters are bigger than life. To get into a story of yours, the character has to exude a sense of yearning for something, a yearning ordinary individuals have but do not yet know how to articulate.
You need in effect to send your characters to acting school, where they learn to concentrate on the parts they are about to become.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Some years after the Great Depression ended and World War II was over, your mother set out on a campaign to, as she put it, "make up for those awful years of Kraft Dinner." She did so with two macaroni-based dishes, one featuring a sauce of a sharp, tangy Tillamock cheese, purchased at the Farmers' Market; the other macaroni dish had fresh roma tomatoes and diced Kalamata olives.
Both dishes became immediate successes to the point where you were not alone in requesting them. Nor were you alone in your enjoyment of them. To this day, when offered a chance at some first-rate mac and cheese or even a recent macaroni tossed with a fruity California olive oil and goat cheese, you held back, this in honor of Annie's versions.
To this day, thoughts of Kraft Dinner, a packaged concoction purporting to be macaroni and what Kraft considered cheese, cause your stomach to describe a lurch.
The Great Depression brought disaster to the fortunes of your family in many forms, including the regular appearance of Kraft Dinner and Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, both of which your father accepted as payments of debts from the owner of a neighborhood grocery, itself a victim of the depressed economy.
With the end of the Depression and the War, family fortunes, while not back at their former glory, made a return to a level where your mother's abilities in the kitchen were once again able to flourish.
True enough, you were making up for the effects of rationing and some privations, and you were entering the teen years, where no food, good or bad, goes unrecognized. Of equal truth, your eating interests extended well beyond mere quantity, bounding into variety and innovation.
Thus your then favorite restaurant of all restaurants, The Bit O' Sweden, a smorgasbord of epic proportions on Sunset. Large platters of sea foods, herrings, pates, salads, and savories punctuated chafing dishes of meat balls, which stood like prison towers above roasts of lamb and beef, which in their turn nested among various fowl, some en plumage, others such as Cornish game hens, awaiting the pleasures of passersby.
Not since the days of the Pequot Room at the Hotel Narragansett, in Providence,where you relished the slight tinge of iodine in the Little Neck clams, which you mouthed thoughtfully, waiting for the wedge with bleu cheese dressing, the the pasta with a tangy Marinara before the New York Cut of a splendid steak; not since then did you see such variety, thus forming many of your tastes for the years to come.
At the Bit O'Sweden, you ate all the obligatory dishes, salads and individual vegetables, stipulated by your mother, filing those away as well in your memory banks, because this was, after all, a gustatory coming of age beyond the mere filling up on whatever fuel was available.
By then, the metaphor had grown to include reading, in which you loaded your plate with unknown variations on unknown themes, wishing to take it all in, showing little or no patience and even less discretion. Of the two, dining and reading, your tastes at the table are probably more disciplined.
Now, many of the great buffets of your time are past memory--past-but-vivid. Today, you see the greatest smorgasbord of all as Life, itself. Your gait quickens, your spine straightens, your eyes twinkle as you inspect the possibilities, looking for adventure, understanding, and the hearty melange of challenge in the chafing dishes before you.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Once again, the collision of seemingly random events throws you into a familiar bubble you had not realized was a bubble.
The first event was a phone call of epic reach, extending beyond the particular bubble in which you placed yourself when you signed to have your land line and cell phone listed as Do-not-call Numbers relative to solicitations and advertisements. When the land line rings, you answer it with an awareness of what it must feel to live within an estate or gated community with an aggressive security system.
When the phone rang this morning, you answered with the certainty of one who had reasonable filters in place, a certainty that was shattered immediately by a gambit that traps most telephone solicitors, whatever their motive. That gambit comes directly after your identity is established, as in:
"Mr. Lowenkopf? Mr. Shelly Lowenkopf?"
"How are you this morning, Mr. Lowenkopf?"
Most of the individuals you hear from by telephone are not persons who want to know how you are this morning or the growing variation, "How is your day going so far, Mr. Lowenkopf?"
When you hear such gambits of outreach and establishing contact, your immediate response tends to approximate, "It was going well until this phone call."
Today was another matter. This was George, as rapid-fire a speaker in English as speakers known to you as speakers of Spanish or Italian. This was George, who allowed you probably would not remember him but he, on the other hand, was well aware of your exacting tastes in art and the finer aspects of rugs, tapestries, and woven carpeting.
This was George whom you became convinced you did not know, George who must have you confused with someone who does have taste in such things, someone who most assuredly is not you.
George was not put off by your modesty nor the great advantage at which you held him because, at this very moment his wife was packing the remaining things they were taking with them on their return to Turkey, which was his reason for confessing how vulnerable he was at your hands. Carpets and hanging pieces could be yours for pennies on the dollar. Were you to see some of these things now, you would surely take even greater advantage of the situation and then, because it was clear to him that you were not by any means a cruel person, you would offer him a fair ratio of what would still be pennies on the dollar.
No, George could not believe you had no interest in exquisite rugs; you were saying such things only in recognition of the position of vulnerability in which you held him, at which point he drew out for you the taxes and tariff fees he would have to pay, were he to send such treasures back to Turkey.
If there was anything George could tell about you, it was your keen appreciation of art, of your need to have your personal life surrounded with significant reminders that the world has great beauties to offer such as you.
By the time you had consigned George to his forthcoming journey, you were aware of a bond between you that extended beyond a mere conversation. George had put something, however fanciful and open to charges of potential mendacity, into his exchanges with you; its energy remaining long after you turned your attentions back whence they'd been distracted.
But not for long.
The conversation with George led you to recall the tenor and building of non sequitur upon non sequitur of a story you were for some long moments trying to identify, reaching the point where you'd have been satisfied only to remember the author.
Not too many days ago, you'd been in a discussion about an author you much admire. Perhaps he was the key. But you soon became quite sure the author you were seeking was not Dennis Lehane, nor was it another dialogist you admire, Elmore Leonard.
The best thing to do in such circumstances is to push the entire matter as far off into the distance as you can, your past experiences reminding you that the answer will soon appear, whether you are in the midst of a conversation about an other matter or, by yourself, moved on to another subject.
Sure enough, within a few minutes, you had the name of the missing author. It was you. The key to your memory of it some comments you'd made in a recent blog essay about how, in many ways, the easiest way for you to begin work on a short story is to do so as an act of procrastination from another task.
The story you had in mind was from a considerable time back. The story was long enough to have staked some claim to novella length, that is, if your sense of story at the time were closer to what it is now. So then, call it a narrative rather than a novella or a long short story, which might well have become a more traditional length, if you'd had the tools to revise it.
You were in a bubble then, for a number of years. There were characters in your narratives, This one even had a goal, which was winning a competition. Its shape was something you're going to have to fiddle with, experiment with, try to retrieve, revisit in light of the bubble you are now in so far as shape and structure of story is concerned. The memorable thing about this bubble was the dialogue.
At the time, you had no vocabulary for what this dialogue was. Now you see it as a vision, perhaps your best at the time, of persons trying to communicate, but talking about different things, then coming from the exchange with a sense of having been a) articulate and b) so articulate that one could not help being understood, and c) having little or no clue that understanding was in many ways like a cat, wishing to be given its supper.
Many things have changed since you wrote that narrative, which is why you would like to try your hand at bringing it back, if only to see some of the things you were right about back in that bubble, and what changes have overtaken you.
Friday, July 18, 2014
In strange, lovely ways, you have come to realize how, across a wide chasm of years, you've used writing short stories as a means of procrastination. These ways were born upon you during the past few weeks, as reviews on your recent publication of a collection of your stories began to appear.
The connection finally came when, about a week ago, you had occasion to write the following exchange of dialogue in a short story.
"Stop acting so high and mighty."
"I'm not acting. I am high and mighty."
When the time comes for self-editing, you're most likely to remove that last sentence on the grounds of it being unnecessary; the intent and meaning were resident in the more direct response, "I'm not acting."
Although you like the exchange and the story, the dialogue threw you out of the story because much as you want to get this story into the completed draft state, you also want to get an entire draft on the book you're writing, which, in a direct way, is about acting. You were procrastinating the latter by doing the former, a gambit that allows you to say that you were working and, thus, how could that be procrastination. The answer is to get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later, working on the story, but keeping the book on acting as top priority.
Yes, you recognize how funny you are.
Even though this exchange of dialogue, in shortened form, is a keeper, things in stories are not supposed to kick you out of them, rather the exact opposite. Things are supposed to keep you concentrated on the persons and events of the story. This brief exchange had the effect of prankster friends attaching a chain of tin cans to the rear bumper of the honeymoon getaway car.
First and foremost, if an actor--in this case one of your characters--is acting, that's a red flag. The character shouldn't be acting unless the story calls for the character to be seen, assuming a role. For that matter, an actor in a production should not be seen acting; she should come through as focused, entirely in character. In an entire sense, characters do not act, they are.
Second, you recall back, back in the day when, tiring of the journalism and graphic arts aspects of your focus at Los Angeles City College, you transferred to UCLA to get serious about your studies and to find ways that would encourage your writing times. The "ways" emerged during your first semester at UCLA. The "ways" were final examinations, for which you scarcely studied, instead producing a thick sheaf of materials you considered at the time to be short fiction.
Those pages were short fiction, perhaps a novella. But there you were, procrastinating by not studying what you ought (and for which you are doubtless still making up to this day in terms of things you're reading now you didn't read then.
Proof. You were interested in Transcendentalism and Nineteenth Century American then. How could you not have read all the Hawthorne assigned you, in particular The Blythedale Romance, with its focus on life inside and outside communes? Should have, but didn't. Instead wrote a novella about characters on a scavenger hunt, which in its way was a metaphor for attitudes toward material possessions.
True enough; in subsequent years you wrote short fiction as number one priorities, especially since you didn't yet think you were ready to embark on a novel. Of equal truth, you can think of few more intense ways for triggering the emergence of a short story than to have a deadline for some other project.
Let's get back to that neglected theme, the one of characters and actors acting. This return of focus brings you face to face with your belief that an actor in theory acts because she or he is busy translating a series of physical and verbal responses to a simulacrum of interpretive behavior surrounding the ways a fictional being behaves. You accomplish this by transcending the technique and by becoming the character as opposed to the trained, alert individual portraying someone else. You are that other.
Another possible explanation is that you have still to train yourself with as much effectiveness as you'd wish in the matter of staying on the bucking bronco of a horse of bull for some respectable period of time before being bucked off.
Being told to "Act your age." is another trope that reminds you what's at stake here. That exhortation means in effect Be the most serious, conservative, gravitas-laden old coot of which you are able to achieve. It means, Here, take these acting techniques, then apply them to yourself during working hours or family reunion hours, or times when you find hidden, procrastinating, rebellious selves, eager to step forth to take over a one-person show, where, to great effect, you become Stephen Colbert, interviewing Jon Stewart, both of whom are well known to be you.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
When Time passes in Reality, its measurements involve clocks, shadows moving from one side of trees and buildings to another, of time zones, of planets in orbit, of children being called in for dinner, of saloons and taverns closing or, perhaps, opening. There is a sense of purpose, agenda, movement, all according to a cosmic schedule. So many moments of darkness or shadow, so many of light, and moments of gray in between.